Local police and federal authorities are looking for the person who aimed a laser beam at a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flying along the Northern California coast.
And if caught and convicted, that person could be spending years in prison for what’s described by an FBI official as a “serious matter and a violation of federal law.”
The Coast Guard says the pilots of a MH-65D helicopter flying over the Humboldt County community of Arcata were forced to look away when a green laser light was aimed at the aircraft and shined directly into their eyes Friday evening.
“We were at approximately 1,500 feet returning to the base when a green laser shined from left to right across the cockpit, shining in both our eyes,” Lt. Josh Smith said in statement released Wednesday by the Coast Guard.
“We tried not to look at the laser, but flying on the instruments while looking away from it is very difficult.”
Coast Guard pilots frequently fly solely by looking at the cockpit instruments, but are trained to look away from a laser targeting the aircraft in order to protect their eyesight.
When aimed at an aircraft, the powerful beam of light from laser can travel more than a mile and illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots. If a laser shines in the eyes of an aircrew member, Coast Guard flight rules require that the aircraft must abort its mission, and its crew members be taken off flight duty until cleared by a flight surgeon.
The helicopter targeted by the laser was returning to its base in nearby McKinleyville after conducting an operation in Southern California.
The incident takes place as the FBI expands a program to cut down on the number of laser strikes by offering up to $10,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest of any person who aims a laser at an aircraft.
George Johnson, a federal air marshal who serves as a liaison officer with the FBI, warned earlier this year that a new law passed by Congress calls for stiffer penalties, and also lowers the threshold for prosecution.
“The trend is on the rise for jail time in these cases,” Johnson said in a statement released by the FBI.
In March, the FBI says a 26-year-old Fresno County man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter and a hospital emergency transport helicopter. The man and his girlfriend were using a device that was 13 times more powerful than the permissible power emission level for handheld lasers. The girlfriend was also convicted and sentenced to a two-year prison term.
And this week federal prosecutors in Las Vegas announced that a 30-year-old Nevada man was ordered to serve two years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department helicopter in six separate incidents.
Since the federal authorities began tracking laser strikes in 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration says there has been a dramatic increase in the targeting of aircraft by people with handheld lasers.
In 2013, the FAA says there were 3,960 laser illumination incidents reported by pilots — that’s more than ten times the 384 reported in 2006.